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Jun 25 2012

The problem with memoirs

A new book by David Maraniss titled Barack Obama: The Story (that I have not read) apparently challenges certain features of Barack Obama’s life story as recounted by him in his memoir Dreams From My Father (which I have also not read) and says that the reality “was less dramatic — and more routine — than the president made it out to be in the memoir.”

This does not surprise me in the least. I have long been suspicious of the truth of memoirs. Part of the problem is that they are based largely on memories rather than painstaking research, and people’s memories are simply unreliable, especially of events long ago and of their childhood. The memories that we recall are stories that we have told and re-told to ourselves and others many times and along the way they tend to become more dramatic and pointed since we have a natural tendency to edit them to have the events in our life have more meaning and direction. In the process we slowly start to believe the lies we tell ourselves. In my own case, I have discovered that some quite vivid memories of childhood and adolescence could not be corroborated by my immediate family who should have known and are likely false.

Take the story of Malcolm X. Like many people of my generation, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which was essentially a memoir dictated to Alex Haley. I read it when I was quite young and was riveted by Malcolm’s dramatic journey from being a small-time hoodlum to devout Muslim and racist Nation of Islam leader, and then to a more nuanced nonracist political thinker. But just recently I read Manning Marable’s highly readable biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011) where he has researched Malcolm X’s life and finds that it differs in many ways from what we thought we knew based on his own words. Marable reveals someone who was not as bad in the early days as portrayed in the memoir and was more conflicted in later life, less sure of what to do, who he was, and where he was headed. In his memoir, Malcolm X had fallen victim to the all-too-common temptation to make his life’s transitions more dramatic than they really were, even though his story still remains an admirable one of change, growth, and redemption.

The temptation to paint our lives in more dramatic colors is almost irresistible, especially since very few others are in a position to be able to or want to check the details. If you are a Christian and have attended revival meetings, as I have, you may be familiar with people you know who respond to the altar call and rise up and give their lives to Christ. They will sometimes give dramatic testimonies about how bad they were before they got to know Jesus and how their lives were transformed from their wicked ways. But the people I knew personally who did this did not seem to me to have been that bad before nor were they that much better after. But in their own minds, the transition they spoke of must have seemed genuine.

I have come to the conclusion that memoirs should be considered highly suspect when it comes to the truth. I used to be a member of the university committee that selected the common reading book that would be sent out to all incoming first-year students to read prior to their arrival and that would form part of their first year college experience. We would call for book nominations and then go through the list and winnow them down. Memoirs were popular because personal stories tend to be compelling. Many of these memoirs dealt with the trials of young people such as boy soldiers conscripted to fight in wars, refugees escaping harrowing events, or young Americans going to remote parts of the world to help others. The stories were inspiring but as someone who came from the developing world, they often sounded a little too pat to me. They struck me as the kind of story that one would write to specifically appeal to the romantic instincts of Westerners who would be unaware of what life is really like in those societies.

I often found in the memoirs that people would recount vividly events and extended verbatim conversations that they had had when they were five years or so. This seemed to me to be highly unlikely and I became quite suspicious and would investigate the memoirs closely and usually found them wanting. Even a superficial search would reveal that the stories were often embellished, sometimes grossly so. After awhile I started challenging the choice of those books vigorously if they were not backed up by independent data. Despite this vigilance, in 2009 we selected a memoir Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson that was exposed in 2011 to have large portions that were false.

This year the common book reading selection committee was bypassed for a new system that did not involve me. Whoever was behind the process selected once again a memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2009) by William Kamkwamba that I had read soon after it was released. It is the story of a young boy in a remote village in Malawi that routinely suffers from drought and famine. But he found an old elementary physics textbook in a library and this gave him the idea of building a windmill and thus bringing electricity and running water to his home, using any parts that he could get his hands on and adapting anything that lay around.

It is a heartwarming story of fighting against the odds and succeeding and I really hope it holds up.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Henry Gale

    I recently finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It is an account of her hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.

    She kept a journal during her hike and while I believe her story there were plenty of situations where I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Also, the book was written twenty years after the fact which leads me to further question some of the events that transpired.

  2. 2
    Sunny

    I have a policy of not reading autobiographies. I simply do not believe them. I might as well read good fiction. The only one I attempted was Gandhi’s. I gave up after trudging through three-quarters of the book.

    I vaguely remember Kahnemann discussing the issue of selective memory in his most recent book.

  3. 3
    You Don't Know Jack

    I can understand not putting a lot of faith in someone’s one autobiography and understand the problems of selective memory but what makes you think that the biographies are going to be any better?

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    A good biographer usually has the research skills to investigate and see if facts bear out the stories, as well as being more dispassionate in doing so. Of course, a bad biographer is worthless.

  5. 5
    Steve LaBonne

    Memoirs should- of course!- always be judged as literature and not as objective recounting of fact (as though anybody can be objective about his / her own life.) Obama’s happens to be a pretty good book.

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